The messaging app owned by Meta wants to be as popular in the US as it is everywhere else. Will a big push for marketing work?
WhatsApp is already one of the most popular messaging apps in the world, with more than 2 billion users. But none of its biggest markets are in the US. Now, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and just changed its name to Meta, wants to change that.
Meta will start the first-ever US marketing push for WhatsApp this weekend. The focus of the campaign will be on how the app’s encryption makes it private. The first TV ad will air Sunday during the AFC Championship Game. It will say that unencrypted messages are like having a stranger look through your mail. Soon, similar ads about WhatsApp’s privacy will start to show up on billboards and online all over the country.
Will Cathcart, who runs WhatsApp for Meta, says the goal of the marketing push is to get more people in the US to switch to WhatsApp by pointing out how much safer it is than other texting methods like SMS. “What we’re seeing in the US, especially in the last couple of years with, is that people are doing much more of their lives online,” he tells The Verge. “But there is a big difference between how many people use end-to-end encrypted services in the US and everywhere else in the world.”
A 2019 study by CTIA found that more than 5 billion SMS messages are sent every day in the U.S. that are not encrypted. A lot of those messages are probably spam or ads, but SMS is also the default way to text on many Android phones and is used when someone on iMessage texts with an Android device. Google is starting to push hard for RCS, the long-awaited upgrade to SMS that adds features like read receipts and, in some cases, encryption. But Apple hasn’t shown any sign that it wants to make iMessage work with RCS. Green bubbles are damned.
Cathcart thinks that the fact that WhatsApp works on both iOS and Android is a selling point for people who are fed up with texting on different platforms. He says that the company is working on making it easy to sync your chat history from an iOS device to any Android phone and vice versa. And last year, WhatsApp added fully encrypted backups, which Apple hasn’t done with iMessage yet.
Since Facebook’s brand isn’t as well known in the US as it is in other parts of the world, it’s good for WhatsApp that this marketing push comes after the company changed its name to Meta. This weekend’s TV ads say that WhatsApp is “from Meta” and not Facebook, just like the first screen you see when you open the app. Cathcart says that the rebranding of Meta didn’t have anything to do with the timing of the US push, but I’m still not sure.
Cathcart says that the new Meta distinction will help people in other countries more than in the United States. “Outside of the US, I think it will help a lot of people understand that we can now talk about Meta the company and not Facebook the product,” he says. “We’ve seen users, especially ones who aren’t as smart, get confused when we say “Facebook.” They think of the app and their friends seeing something when we say “Facebook.”
Meta’s own research has shown that messaging apps tend to build strong network effects that can be hard to compete with over time. In the US, apps like Snapchat, iMessage, and even Facebook Messenger are much more popular than WhatsApp. It’s not clear if a marketing push will make a difference.
There are no plans to help RCS.
Cathcart agrees that it’s a good thing that RCS will encrypt SMS traffic, but he says that WhatsApp has no plans to add RCS compatibility. Cathcart says that since RCS is an open standard, adding support for it would slow down the development of WhatsApp. Before he joined Meta more than a decade ago, he worked at Google on early spam filtering technology for Gmail. There, he saw how hard it is to make changes quickly to the open standards that support email.
“I think it would be very hard to offer the same level of security, reliability, and ease of use that we’ve been proud of,” he says of adding RCS support. “So, this isn’t something we’re working on right now.” I’ll never say never. It’s awesome that SMS is getting better. But one of the problems with a system like that is that you can’t really push security, ease of use, or reliability.
WhatsApp is mostly used for messaging between two people, but the company is working on new features that will make it easier for larger groups to talk to each other. This could put it in more direct competition with services like Discord and Reddit. I asked Cathcart about a feature called “Communities” that was recently found in WhatsApp’s code but hasn’t been released yet. It seems to be aimed at making large group chats bigger by adding subgroups and giving admins more control. Cathcart says that schools and religious groups are using WhatsApp more and more, which is a good thing because it has features that could help them.
“You can see how a school principal might want to be able to delete messages that are being sent within the school,” he says. “Is there a way to set up and give administrators control over these kinds of communities?” Given how many people have started using WhatsApp for this in the last couple of years, we think it’s an interesting way for us to improve the product.
“One thing we learned is that it’s very important to talk about privacy policies in a way that is clear, simple, and easy to understand,” says Cathcart. “People can find this stuff hard to understand. A lot of people thought we were changing something about how private their messages were, and a lot of them said we could read their messages. That was not true.
Mark Zuckerberg hinted last year that Meta plans to make a new umbrella account system so that users can manage their identities across WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and its other products. It’s part of a long-term plan to eventually connect WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram’s messaging systems so that users can talk across them.
Cathcart says that this week’s rollout of encrypted, opt-in messaging on Messenger is an early step toward the apps being more connected. So far, WhatsApp has done well in large parts of the world even though it has stayed mostly separate from its parent company. Now, the question is whether it can do the same in the US as it gets closer to the rest of Meta.
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